Final Fantasy XV is a rare and fascinating phenomena in gaming. A game with a multitude of problems that could (and should) easily degrade the whole package into a disappointing mess. A game that departs from the style and mechanics of a long-established series in the hopes of making it more accessible. A game that is consistently inconsistent with its storytelling and characterisation. A game that’s spent the best part of a decade in development under a different guise, and often feels like it’s stuck where it began.
And yet…it works. It works so unfathomably well, and that’s got a lot to do with the characters you spend your time with, and Square-Enix’s desire to make brave changes.
Brief recap first then. Final Fantasy XV started life as a Final Fantasy XIII spinoff (Versus XIII) and twisted in the wind for so long that it now finally reemerges in a world burned by a lengthy season of disappointment with the series. Final Fantasy XIII (aka ‘it gets good after 20 hours of ballache, I promise!’) was…let’s say, divisive. Not enough to prevent it raking in a hefty wedge of cash, but enough to inspire a general air of ambivalence about the franchise (yes, you can disagree, yes you can say you like FFXIII) that’s been supplemented by snafus with MMO variant Final Fantasy XIV. It was looking grim for developer Square-Enix and the franchise itself, but hope appeared as FFXIV was turned around into a qualified success. A lot rested on the long-gestating Final Fantasy XV coming up good, and there were definitely early signs that might be hoping for too much, and when certain aspects of the game are isolated, you can definitely see where there could be cause for concern.
Of course, observing things in isolation is good for nitpicking and sci-fi horror games with xenomorphs, but used too often it often causes good, fun experiences to be demeaned. It’s important to remember this with a game like Final Fantasy XV because there’s plenty of criticism to be dished out, but the whole thing plays out a lot better than it might sound.
A Tale as Old as Time
Anyway, Final Fantasy XV puts you in the posh shoes of one Prince Noctis, a reluctant heir to the throne, as he begins an epic road trip to reunite with childhood sweetheart, Oracle, and wife-to-be, Lunafreya, and tie the knot for love and political stability (as the most timeless of romances always are). He’s accompanied on this journey by his advisor, the bespectacled culinary enthusiast Ignis, brutish bodyguard Gladio, and Noctis’ excitable non-royal pal Prompto. Noctis’ crew are there, first and foremost, to keep him safe, but there is a kinship between the four young men, one that acts as the foundation for Final Fantasy XV’s strengths.
After the gang’s car breaks down early into the trip, they push it to Hammerhead, the nearest repair centre, trading quips and playful ribbing as Florence and the Machine’s impressively heartfelt cover of ‘Stand By Me’ plays. It’s an odd opening moment, the use of licensed music in this magical, distant world can feel somewhat jarring, yet it’s an effective introduction to the oddball normalcy dynamic that will permeate the next 50 plus hours you’ll go through.
Summoning Up an Adventure
Final Fantasy XV’s landscapes are surprisingly grounded in reality. For instance, the opening areas of this large open world map are heavily reminiscent of U.S. desert towns. There’s diners, vast expanses of yellow-orange rock terrain, and of course, highways that help create a weird sense of place that feels just a teensy bit off. This could be a problem if the more fantastical elements were ill-fitting with the locations, but the design of the more bizarre beasts, weaponry and clothing is done in such a way that it fits just well enough by having touchstones in reality. Probably more than any Final Fantasy, this feels like a believable world that runs parallel to actual reality, blending Japanese, American, and European culture with magic and monsters in a delightfully strange, but sensible, way. I wasn’t quite sure how I’d feel about this open world Final Fantasy lark, unsure if it the developers could capture the essence of what fans want from Final Fantasy within a sprawling land, but I needn’t have worried. It’s not the best open world in games by any measure, but it remains an interesting one, surprisingly filled with little moments that shake up the rigidity of the majority of questline objectives.
There’s plenty to discover in the game world, and it plays a big part in helping you grow attached to this four man team’s adventure. Of course there’s combat and questing (getting to that), but it’s the in between moments that best solidify that bonding process. Eating meals at diners, camping and cooking in the wild, fishing, finding photo spots, gambling, and the long, easygoing drives between places, these are the moments in which you grow to care for the boys on tour, no doubt finding a favorite among them (here at PSU there’s votes for each of the four, I’m all for Ignis personally), but it’s just an all-round likeable group, unusual in a way as you’d expect Noctis, as a male main protagonist in a Final Fantasy game, to be a moody, unlikeable shit. He certainly starts that way, but as time progresses, it’s clear his story is one of acceptance and responsibility. Things he has great trouble with handling, but it doesn’t prevent him being a fairly down-to-earth guy who shows kindness.
It sadly takes until over halfway into the main chapters for anyone to actually develop properly though. Sure you get than kinship between your four main boys, but little of that is down to the story in the early hours. When you get to other, non-playable characters and fleeting team members, you’re expected to have a level of connection with many of the people you encounter, but comparable to the time Noctis spends with Ignis, Gladio, and Prompto, it’s far too miniscule and rushed to have the desired effect. Villains remain undefined in their roles for far too long as well, which adds a bit of intrigue in certain cases, but confusion for others. Happily, the most important players all get there time in the sun as the game shifts into a more linear final furlong, bringing more impactful moments to the foreground. Still, it would have been nice to spend a bit more time with certain secondary characters, get to know them just a bit more than what you see in cutscenes, and form some sort of emotional bond akin to what the game expects you to have.
Random Encounters (and Combat)
Story is only part of the package of course, and there’s no denying the majority of your time in Final Fantasy XV is going to be spent tonking beasts and baddies with ruddy great swords and the like. Combat, now mainly in real-time rather than turn-based, is one of those areas of Final Fantasy XV where there’s definite issues, yet never quite enough to spoil things. It is both refreshingly simple, and infuriatingly unwieldy. What works includes the no-nonsense one-button attacks (triangle warp dashes Noctis into enemies, circle is for general weapon-swinging), and the team up moves. These become available as you fill a segmented power bar, and holding down L1 brings up a small menu that allows you to select a special move for one of you three compadres. Ignis, specialises in healing, Gladio in brute force, and Prompto does ranged damage with his guns. Each attacking special can be signed off with a timed attack by Noctis for extra damage. This, alongside link strikes (double team moves activated when Noctis and a teammate are in the correct contextual point during a battle), further plays into the camaraderie and kinship of the group. Character building through combat if you will. Also of note is the simple transition between weapons (you can switch between up to four in battle with d-pad presses). It’s so swift and responsive you barely notice you’ve switched weapon.
This setup is a lifesaver as battles with multiple, different enemy types begin to occur more often, as certain weapons are more effective than others depending on the enemy involved. That’s also true of the magic of course, which is stripped back to three elemental flavors (though you can mix them up in the Elemancy menu) and brings them in as limited use projectiles that you craft from minerals in the environment (usually around camps) rather than as natural abilities. They do decent damage, but you have to be tactical with magic as your team can be affected by it, so throwing it at enemies whilst your buddies are in the vicinity is incredibly risky. A handy addition is having your healing items and the like tucked away on a game-pausing menu brought up with a press of R2. Everything is simplified for real-time combat, and it’s a gamble that pays off for the most part.
What doesn’t work is initially terribly frustrating. The lock-on is highly erratic, not being especially useful more often than not. Noctis tends to gravitate towards the nearest enemy with attacks anyway, but it’s frustrating that you’re reduced to wild swings more often than not. It certainly becomes an issue in some enclosed areas, especially against bigger mobs of enemies, as chaos reigns with targets being even more difficult to pick up. You’ll slog through it with little frustration however, given how infrequent that particular combination occurs. Also a tad unresponsive is the parry system. In one-to-one or two encounters it works perfectly fine, a timed tap of square when prompted, followed by a timed tap of circle to retaliate. When things get hectic however, it becomes potluck on responsiveness as the game struggles to determine who or what is trying to hit you. A quick aside, who decided to put jump and interact onto the same button? Madness.
Good and bad, these changes make combat more involving, and while there was a concern that boss battles would feel less grandiose through simplification, the switch to an almost action hack n’ slash style combined with some JRPG home comforts manages to maintain the epic sense of scale and importance to them, but still twist it into a new shape. It’s a smaller part of how pleasingly tactile and involving this Final Fantasy is on a mechanical level.
World of Wonder
Holding all this together is the audiovisual mesh, and while this isn’t the most technically impressive Final Fantasy relative to the games surrounding it, it does have many flourishes of true beauty thanks to some stunning art design. Breathtaking views, majestic beasts, and vivid spectacle are among the highlights you’ll encounter time and again. On the other hand, there are times where the ugly ten year development beast rears its head and shows the age of the original concept, something that permeates throughout the game’s design as old and new battle for supremacy. It’s all part of the game’s maddening charm though. The character models are wonderfully realised, especially the clothing, giving each important player a level of detail that ensures they remain distinct and memorable in a visual sense, even if that’s not always the case with their personalities. There’s the odd silly technical glitch of course, being an open world game, but rarely anything close to intrusive.
Then there’s the soundtrack. The orchestral score has some stellar moments with compositions such as the title theme (Somnus) and various battle themes (Omnis Lacrima chief among them) providing the high points. There’s a bit of chuff in there naturally, but so much of it has stuck in my head long after play. The rousing, stirring emotionally-charged swells of some tracks are pitch perfect to the onscreen accompaniment. It’s worth noting that the licensed tracks are great too, Florence and the Machine’s contributions alone are wonderful. Perhaps the greatest musical pleasure in Final Fantasy XV is the car radio that let’s you play soundtracks from past titles. I spent much of my time with the sounds of Final Fantasy VIII accompanying my trip, and that pleased me way more than it should have.
Phoenix From The Flames
I can’t honestly say I came into Final Fantasy XV with any sense of expectation, but Square’s reworking of the formula, while not always successful, is a triumphant gamble. The strangeness of this cultural mashup serves as a reminder of how fun the series could be whilst still keeping a foot in the present. It shouldn’t work on several levels, at least not to the degree it does, but there’s something rather unique about Final Fantasy XV as an RPG that means it’s one I’ll remain very fond of. If nothing else, this proves there’s still a place of relevance for Final Fantasy in modern gaming. A willingness to shake up the blueprint a bit and become that bit more inclusive for non-RPG fans, is key to that, and while that might alienate some who wish for a return to classic Final Fantasy, it shouldn’t be seen as a step back, rather a brave, and largely successful gamble that continues the series’ renaissance.